They can be as small as a length of a finger and weigh as little as a penny.
Their wings flap 50 times per second, and their metabolism is so fast that they eat half their weight in sugar every day.
They were revered in some cultures. Aztecs, for instance, believed that fallen warriors would return to Earth as these creatures.
They are hummingbirds, and this is an overview on what they eat, how they eat, and how you can bring them to your yard.
Hummingbirds are New World birds, in that they reside solely in the the Americas. They live as far north as southern Alaska and as far south as Tierra del Fuego, the southern-most tip of South America.
The majority inhabit the more temperate climate of Central America, with other species migrating there during the onset of winter in the different hemispheres.
They are known for certain distinctive traits and they have a pronounced bill that is slender and can be used to eat and to chase off competition at the same time.
Their bill is a handy bit of evolution for hummingbirds, as it remarks on their food source and why they’ve spread throughout the Americas when other species have disappeared.
So what do hummingbirds eat? Read on to learn more about these amazing creatures and how to attract them to your yard.
What Do Hummingbirds Eat? (Hummingbirds as “Nectarivores”)
Hummingbirds are classified as “nectarivores,” which is an animal that derives its energy and nutrition primarily from nectar.
Essentially, nectar is a sugar-rich liquid produced by flowers, often within flowers for animals that pollinate. Nectar is the source of a product almost everyone knows: honey.
Many researchers have concluded that hummingbirds need the sugar in nectar to fuel their ultra-fast metabolism:
- One author states that on any given day, a hummingbird will feed on hundreds of flowers, “consuming up to 12 times their body weight in nectar.”
- One study even determined that hummingbirds have the “highest known mass-specific metabolic rates” for any creature that regulates its body temperature internally.
- An essay on the website of Stanford University say that hummingbirds have tiny bodies and large expenditures of energy. This often puts them hours away from starvation unless a food source is acquired.
So what do hummingbirds eat? The food source for hummingbirds is almost always nectar. Nectar is produced by many different types of flowers, and hummingbirds are not the only creature looking for it.
Everyone is familiar with the bee that flies from flower to flower in search of nectar. Butterflies and moths are often in search of it.
And even bats can consume nectar and act as pollinators.
Which Flowers Attract Hummingbirds and Why
Some flowers in the United States that are known to produce nectar include:
- Honeysuckle (well-known species names start with Lonicera) – An “arching” shrub or twisting bine that has small, delicate and sweetly smelling flowers.
- Monarda (of the family Lamiaceae) – known as the beebalm or horsemint, these are plants that grow as high as 35 inches and have leaves that smell like bergamot orange.
- Tecoma stans (of the family Bignoniaceae) – has lance-shaped green leaves and large, bright yellow trumpet-shaped flowers. Some cultivate it as an ornamental.
- Chilopsis (known as the Desert Willow) – native to the southwestern United States and Mexico, its flowers are varying shades of pink and it may survive temperatures as low as 10 degrees.
- Justicia (of the family Acanthaceae) – called the Water Willow or Shrimp Plant, it has showy flowers with colors of cream, yellow, orange or pink.
Hummingbirds are attracted to brightly colored flowers, like orange, purple, yellow, and pink. Red flowers are cited as the color hummingbirds are most attracted to, likely for the range of wavelengths detected by their eyes.
The Hummingbird Version of Hibernation
One of the biological challenges hummingbirds face is their ultra-fast metabolism. Because they require a high percentage of their body weight in nectar, a period without food can be life-threatening.
At night or whenever food is not readily available, hummingbirds enter a state called “torpor.” It is a hibernation-like state where body temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate all slow dramatically.
An example, the average hummingbird has a heart rate of over 1000 beats per minute during the day. During torpor, the beats per minute slow to between 50 and 180
When not in torpor, hummingbirds have a rare biological component that supports their high rate of activity: the use of sugars to support metabolic needs. Within 35-45 minutes of ingesting nectar, a hummingbird can sustain additional flight.
As an example of the rarity of this performance, a human athlete can use only 30% of sugar intake for activity, compared to 100% for hummingbirds.
The Co-Evolution of Hummingbirds and Flowers
Many studies have theorized that hummingbirds and nectar-producing flowering plants evolved in “co-evolution”; in other words, that they evolved with each other for survival.
The diversification among hummingbirds occurred around 22 million years ago, caused by the evolution of bill shapes with corresponding flowers.
In very diverse regions like the Andes Mountains, hundreds of hummingbird species can exist, which promotes the theory of co-evolution.
Here are some examples supporting this theory:
- The sword-billed hummingbird is the only hummingbird to have a bill longer than its body. This allows it to feed on flowers with long corollas, like the Passiflora mixta.
- The sickle-billed hummingbird has a curved bill that is an adaptation to certain types of flowers, such as the Centropogon and Heliconia.
- Researchers have shown that the different bill lengths of hummingbirds make them suited for different flowers; longer bill lengths can reach nectar stored deeper within flowers, creating an evolutionary advantage.
While the mechanism for how a humingbird feeds was conjecture for some time, recent studies hace shown that the hummingbird traps the nectar with a forked tongue before “pumping it” up and digesting it.
While most of a hummingbird’s energy comes from nectar within flowers, hummingbirds also eat insects and spiders. Nectar is made up of three ingredients—sucrose, glucose, and fructose—that have little nutritional value. Hummingbirds then spend a portion of their time eating insects and spiders to complement their diet.
Four Steps to Attract Hummingbirds to Your Yard
Many Americans enjoy building bird feeders and putting out bird baths to make their property friendlier to birds. Many experts have mapped out a series of steps for those who want to make their yard a haven for hummingbirds. They are:
- Pick a hummingbird feeder that is an attractive color (to hummingbirds). Because hummingbirds are attracted to flowers with bright colors like red, orange, pink, or purple, a feeder with a corresponding color works well.
- Use the standard “nectar” Many companies who used to offer nectar recipes in stores filled with additives that were dangerous to hummingbirds. Some even used artificial red dye. Many use a recipe of one-part sugar to four-parts water. The mixture is boiled and then stored before use.
- To get rid of bees…. Hummingbirds are not the only ones who feed off nectar. Many prevent bees and wasps from using the feeder by purchasing a feeder that has a “bee guard.” Hummingbirds lick the nectar out of the feeder, so wiping the excess (it is small) may be necessary.
- Hummingbirds are Hummingbirds are fierce when defending their food source, turning flight speed and the bill into a weapon. The author linked notes that more hummingbird feeders may be necessary if you want more than one hummingbird in the yard.
Hummingbirds have migration patterns, moving to warmer climates as winter sets in. For those that are trying to attract hummingbirds in the northern parts of the United States, a dip in hummingbird population can be expected.
Another option for those wanting to attract hummingbirds to their yard is a bird bath. While hummingbirds do not drink water, they use water for cleaning their feathers.
Hummingbirds, those small birds that can weigh as little as a penny, have us all fascinated.
For scientists, hummingbirds are being used to analyze threats to the environment. Their flight patterns and weight can give us a glimpse into threats to our environment. Rings attached to them give us insight into their migratory patterns, mortality rates, and territoriality.
For the lay person, hummingbirds are a delight. Finding a hummingbird outside of a flower bush or feeder in the morning is a pleasant surprise, with not many birds possessing the hummingbird’s beauty quality in both sight and sound.
And there are the facts themselves, which are astonishing: Hummingbirds eat several small meals a day, absorb mostly sugar from nectar, have the metabolic capacity that is unequaled among warm-blooded creatures, and can migrate over great distances, while flying at speeds above 30 miles per hour. All for a bird that can weight as little as a penny.
Maybe it was all the above that inspired Sanober Khan to write the following in Turquoise Silence:
“may my faith always be / at the end of the day / like a hummingbird…returning to its favorite flower.”
See? They even got the poets too.